The Infamous Rosalie By Evelyne Truillot: Respect Your Elders

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As the old saying goes, “Respect your elders”. In Evelyne Truillot’s The Infamous Rosalie, all Lisette has is her elders to depend on. She lost both her mother and her Aunt Brigitte to the ills of slavery. These stories that the elders tell her come after meaning events take place on the Fayot plantation. Two elders: Grandma Charlotte and Ma Augustine, give Lisette a sense of self with these stories they tell. The stories are essential tools to know her past so that she can live in the present and move toward an uncertain future. I will attempt to prove my thesis by discussing the following points: First, using Evelyne Truillot’s essay Home is home but where is home, to discuss what home is to Lisette as she is surrounded by slavery trying to navigate her life and make sense of she is. I will pair this with Grandma Charlotte’s telling Lisette the story of the Infamous Rosalie. Second, Grandma Charlotte and telling Lisette about the barracoons and third, Ma Augustine, telling Lisette about her late Aunt Brigitte before Ma Augustine passed on.

The Fayot plantation is not home for Lisette. The Fayot plantation is where she lives, works and suffers in search for a path to freedom. In Truillot’s Home is home but where is home? Essay, she talks about the types of movement in society. People realizing that they have to leave where they are to create a better life for themselves and their families is one. Another type is moving away from one’s birthplace is viewed as a sign of maturity and independence. In the last case and what Trouillot deemed the most troublesome were those people that do not have a choice to live where they are born. They either love it or they do not but their only option is to escape to freedom. For Lissette, San Domingue was not her home. She lost her mother and aunt at a young age, two pieces of her puzzle to self-discovery and home if you will. Lisette recalled Grandma Charlotte telling her the story of the Infamous Rosalie.

Grandma Charlotte told her exactly what it was like on a slave ship: “On the ship I experienced a night I had never known, a night with no sky, no stars and no breeze; with bodies huddled against each other; with odors and movements stripped of their intimacy; with linked embraces and never ending moans. ” This is pure darkness. Sky, stars and breeze signify nice nights out in nature that people can enjoy but for slaves there was no such thing. The words “odors, “movements, ” and “intimacy, ” signify sex and closeness but in this context, these slaves were put in close quarters and those close quarters made conditions unbearable and inhumane to fathom and cope with. Grandma Charlotte continued on with her story and spoke about a Hausa woman who danced Don Pedro’s dance. The whites watched in confusion and laughter while the slaves had a complete opposite reaction. Bridgette was the first to be tied up and considered a threat. Grandma Charlotte pointed out that shoe could have killed herself to escape the misery of slavery, but she did not want to leave Lisette’s mother and Grandma Charlotte behind to go through hell without her. There the reader gets a small look into the selflessness of Bridgette and this allows Lisette to gain another tidbit of knowledge as to where she comes from. From here, Grandma Charlotte then tells Lisette what it feels like to personally experience the trauma of slavery: “I tell you, Lisette, when you’ve lived through the barracoons, and the crossing, the sale and every possible hue of shame, even when you continue to breathe, large pieces of you are lost forever, like strips of flesh scraped off, one after another. In the end you’re so torn apart you no longer feel a thing. You’re imprisoned in a shell no ray can penetrate”.

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What stands out to me right away is the word “shame. ” As a slave, shame was a part of the institution. You had no freedom, there seemingly was no path to such a thing unless you successfully escaped and the conditions under which people lived were unjust and inhumane. When Grandma Charlotte said, “Even when you continue to breathe…You’re imprisoned in a shell no ray can penetrate, ” That just speaks to the fact that slavery wore on those people mentally, physically and spiritually. They had nothing left to give and nothing to hope for.

I also noticed how Trouillot used the imagery of a slave being whipped when discussing the gradual breakdown of the slave spirit. Later, Lisette recalls watching Grandma Charlotte sleep and details what she saw in her grandmother: “I look at my godmother’s face, which even in rest tells me that life has marked it with a thousand wounds and that her face responded to each blow in kind. Every wrinkle and every crack”. Lisette was not only receiving knowledge the mind of her elder, she now could see all that Grandma Charlotte had through because of physical marks on her body. This further socializes Lisette allowing her to see that she does not want the same for herself. The story about the barracoons finally reaches Lisette’s ears and comes out of Grandma Charlotte’s mouth. Barracoons were camps surrounded by tall fencing under the surveillance of guards. Grandma Charlotte pointed out that they were both white and black. The skin color did not matter because that was blended with the harsh treatment they inflicted upon the slaves. This was a highly anticipated story for Lisette, one that was very important to her socialization: I’m in pain and still fighting so many mysteries that I can’t tell my right hand from my left; I can’t tell where to go or what to do. I feel this story invading me”.

Grandma Charlotte goes on to discuss how the guards set up large tubs filled with water for them to bathe in, gave them boiled rice with pepper sauce and even encouraged them to sing. That was ironic to me given the fact that yes slave spirituals were used as a means to cope but they also were a code-switching mechanism I’m sure for escape. At night, moaning and screams of despair would permeate the barracoons and that that would result in random beating in moderation to preserve the value of the slaves for the buyers. She goes on to talk about what the barracoons represented to her and Grandma Charlotte lost her own sense of self: “To me the barracoons represented the beginning of night, the end of liberty. The first captivity was the most ferocious one, the most irrevocable. Not even my body belonged to me. I no longer recognized it in my own mournful flesh. My spirit had left me, as if I were elsewhere, watching this spectacle from a distance. I seemed to be lost in the darkness in which I found myself”.

This brings me back to my other point about Lisette being socialized by sight at watching her godmother sleep. Even though this is a story she’s hearing, it’s not hard for the reader to see the imagery of Grandma Charlotte losing her agency as a person despite the belief that slaves were not considered to be people. If you can use any of the five senses, think for yourself and you have a story to tell, in my book you are a person. Lisette describes what it means to be a slave and how shame plays a role to close her reflection of Grandma Charlotte’s barracoons story: “Whether a field slave, a house slave, man, woman or child, the slave is a creature who has lost his soul between the mill and the sugarcane, between the ship’s hold and its steerage, between the crinoline and the slap in the face. Shame stains our every gesture…we crush our souls under the weight of our shame. Only our gestures of revolt truly belong to us”. The shame was handed down by the oppressors and the only way to get rid of that shame for slaves is to rise up and revolt. Unfortunately, revolts, successful revolts were few and far between. Lisette now received Grandma Charlotte’s origin story featuring her mother, Bridgette and others. After hearing said story, she had come to terms with the fact that she was a slave. Her socialization is not complete. There is still another story to be told. Now we come to the story of Aunt Brigitte. We hear more in depth about her later in the novel as Lisette speaks about a cord that Brigitte wore all the time. Ma Augustine said that Bridgette would wear the cord around her waist taking it off only to wash it and then putting it right back around her waist. Lisette reflected on trying to honor and remember her aunt: “I’ve lived my whole life honoring my aunt, cherishing everything that brought me close to her, the many traits I was said to have inherited from her: my waist, the almond shape of my eyes, the way I walk and even my laugh”.

After Lisette’s reflection, Ma Augustine tells her the story of Bridgette and colonist Montreuil’s connection. Montreuil was an arrogant and cruel man who loved women. Bridgette in particular. He believed in gaining pleasure by taking things into his own hands without waiting. So, in order to manipulate Brigitte into doing what he wanted, he went after Ayouba, Lisette’s mother. On two occasions, Brigitte rejected his advances and he had Ayouba beaten. This was going to happen a third time, but Brigitte followed orders. Even with this being the case, it was clear that Bridgette was not above killing him to protect her loved ones. A threat to kill Bridgette and her loved ones came from Montreuil but he knew that she had knowledge of herbs, plants and the human body so keeping her alive was in his best interest. This didn’t sit well with his wife. Her hate for Brigitte caused her to have Brigitte whipped naked in front of the entire plantation. That backfired on her as Montreuil caught wind of what happened and slapped his wife in front of the house slaves. Brigitte gained a reputation as a healer and midwife of an entire region. She healed both white and black people. Ma Augustine wanted to make clear to Lisette who Bridgette was beyond the story: “Salt of the earth, proud and generous, solid and tough like a mapou. Brigitte smelled of fresh herbs, of the wild and enduring smell of the forest. She was created to be free”. Brigitte sacrificed her freedom so that Grandma Charlotte, Ma Augustine and Ayouba could get off the Villiers plantation. So, their freedom meant more to her than her own. Shortly after hearing Aunt Brigitte’s story, Lisette is with Ma Augustine as she passes away. Lisette is fully aware of the toll this loss is going to take on her: I cry silently, aware of the emptiness that awaits me. For Ma Augustine is truly the last connection to the past that shaped me, as well as Grandma Charlotte and all the people I knew through their words in the time of the barracoons and deep in the ship’s hold. Her absence will be the cruelest one”.

On one hand, Ma Augustine death is a very unfortunate loss but what she can take away from the time she spent with Ma Augustine and Ma Charlotte was her thirst for knowledge of who she is and where came from was honed and cultivated through those two women. They taught her to be courageous, smart and strong by example. In Conclusion, Lisette’s socialization came to be through the wisdom and strength of her elders. They never let her wonder for too long about her past. They made sure that she knew in due time. Lisette even mentioned in the novel that she never felt closer to the women that nurtured her childhood. She was comforted by their presence. So, when we think of elders usually grandparents, they are nurturers, care givers, and people who have stories to tell and wisdom to share. The wisdom that Lissete’s elders shared with her about where she comes from prepared her what would be ahead. She would become pregnant and hopefully be as nurturing to her child and grandchildren as they were to her.

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